Forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi launched a counter-attack on Thursday, fighting fierce gun battles with rebels who have threatened the Libyan leader by seizing important towns close to the capital.
The grip of Gaddafi on Libya loosened further as major cities and towns closer to the capital fell to the rebellion against his rule. In the east, now all but broken away, the opposition vowed to "liberate" Tripoli, where the Libyan leader is holed up with a force of militiamen roaming the streets and tanks guarding the outskirts.
The London Evening Standard reported Thursday that Gaddafi's cousin defected in a major blow to the Libyan leader's regime.
Gaddafi's cousin defects
As fierce gun battles took place in a key city close to the capital, Ahmed Gadhaf al-Dam, one of Gaddafi's closest aides and his foreign affairs spokesman, announced that he was deserting to Egypt in protest against the bloody crackdown on civilians, denouncing what he called "grave violations to human rights and human and international laws."
It is the most high level defection to hit the regime so far after several ambassadors, the justice minister and the interior minister all sided with the protesters. The latest of diplomatic resignations was that of the Libyan ambassador to Jordan, who resined on Thursday.
"Libyan ambassador to Amman Mohammed Hassan Barghathi has announced his resignation from his post because of the current developments in his country," the state-run Petra news agency reported without elaborating.
"The bloody clashes in my country, where the Libyan people are being killed are unbelievable, unimaginable and unjustifiable," Petra quoted Barghathi as saying.
Gunbattles were taking place between forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and his opponents in the town of Zawiyah, 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, witnesses said on Thursday.
Two people who crossed into Tunisia after travelling through the town said there were people in civilian clothes running through the streets with guns, and the sound of heavy gunfire could be heard.
Fighting in Zawiyah
Zawiyah, on the Mediterranean coast, is on the main highway between the Tunisian border and the Libyan capital and is also the site of an oil terminal.
"I heard heavy gunfire in Zawiyah and people were running around in the streets with guns," said Hussein Ibrahim, an Egyptian carpenter, after crossing into Tunisia.
"Lots of people in civilian clothes are firing at each other. They seem to be pro-Gaddafi people and their enemies," said Mohamed Jaber, who also passed through Zawiyah on his way to Tunisia on Thursday.
"It is chaotic there. There are people with guns and swords," he said.
Key Libyan oil and product terminals to the east of the capital are in the hands of rebels who have seized control from Gaddafi, said residents of Benghazi who are in touch with people in region.
The residents told Reuters on Thursday the oil and product terminals at Ras Lanuf and Marsa El Brega were being protected.
Soliman Karim, a resident involved with helping administer the eastern city of Benghazi, said exports, a vital source of income for OPEC-member Libya, were continuing. A second resident suggested flows might have been affected.
The information could not immediately be confirmed from those operating the terminals.
In a further sign of Gaddafi's faltering hold, two air force pilots - one from the leader's own tribe - parachuted out of their warplane and let it crash into the eastern Libyan desert rather than follow orders to bomb an opposition-held city.
International momentum was building for action to punish Gaddafi's regime for the bloody crackdown it has unleashed against the uprising that began Feb. 15.
President Barack Obama said the U.S. is examining all options for pressuring Libya to end a violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrators, and he is dispatching Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to a meeting in Switzerland to work with her counterparts from other nations on a coordinated response.
In his first remarks on the uprising that has split the North African country and prompted a deadly response from Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and his loyalists, Obama described the suffering and bloodshed as outrageous and said those responsible must be held accountable.
In Tripoli, Gaddafi's stronghold, protest organizers called for new rallies Thursday and Friday, raising the potential for a more bloody confrontation.
Militiamen and Gaddafi supporters - a mix of Libyans and foreign African fighters bused in - roamed the capital's main streets, called up Tuesday night by the Libyan leader in a fist-pounding speech in which he vowed to fight to the death. The gunmen fired weapons in the air, chanting "Long live Gaddafi," and waved green flags. With a steady rain, streets were largely empty, residents said.
In many neighborhoods, residents set up watch groups to keep militiamen out, barricading streets with concrete blocks, metal and rocks, and searching those trying to enter, a Tripoli activist said.
Tripoli's Aziziya Gates
Gaddafi's residence at Tripoli's Aziziya Gates was guarded by loyalists along with a line of armed militiamen in vehicles, some masked, he said. The radio station building downtown was also heavily fortified. In one western neighborhood, security forces stormed several homes and arrested three or four people, a witness said, while tanks were deployed on the eastern outskirts, witnesses in at least one neighborhood said.
"Mercenaries are everywhere with weapons. You can't open a window or door. Snipers hunt people," said another resident, who said she had spent the night in her home awake hearing gunfire outside. "We are under siege, at the mercy of a man who is not a Muslim."
But below the surface, protesters were organizing, said the activist. At night, they fan out and spray-paint anti-Gaddafi graffiti or set fires near police stations, chanting, "The people want the ouster of the regime," before running at the approach of militiamen, he said. The Tripoli residents, like other witnesses around the country, spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of retaliation.
In opposition-controlled Benghazi, the eastern city where the uprising began, residents held a mass rally outside the city's main courthouse, vowing to support protests in the capital, said Farag al-Warfali, a banker. They also called a one-day fast in solidarity with them. Afterward, young men went into the courthouse to register to obtain weapons, which had been looted from police stations and military bases and then turned over to the city's new rulers, he said.
The idea is to "take their weapons and march toward Tripoli," al-Warfali said, although Benghazi lies 580 miles (940 kilometers) east of the capital, and territory still loyal to Gaddafi lies between them.
There were similar calls in Misrata - several hours' drive from Tripoli, the closest major city to the capital to fall to anti-government forces. A mosque called residents to come to "jihad," or holy war, in support of the anti-Gaddafi camp, said one resident, Iman.
"We are going to join forces with our brothers in Tripoli," she said.
The extent of Gaddafi's control over the country he has ruled for 41 years had been reduced to the western coastal region around Tripoli, the deserts to the south and parts of the center.
After Gaddafi's speech Tuesday night, militiamen flooded into Sabratha, a town west of Tripoli famed for nearby ancient Roman ruins, and battled government opponents who had taken over, said one resident. Around 5,000 militiamen from neighboring towns, backed by army and police units, clashed with the rival group and drove them from the streets, he said.
But his territory was being eroded.
The opposition said Wednesday it had taken over Misrata, Libya's third-largest city.
Residents honked horns in celebration and raised the pre-Gaddafi flags of the Libyan monarchy after several days of fighting that drove militiamen from the city, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) east of Tripoli, said Faraj al-Misrati, a local doctor. He said six people had been killed and 200 wounded in clashes that began Feb. 18.
Residents had formed committees to clean the streets, protect the city and treat the wounded, he said. "The solidarity among the people here is amazing, even the disabled are helping out."
An audio statement posted on the Internet reportedly from armed forces officers in Misrata proclaimed "our total support" for the anti-Gaddafi movement.
New videos posted by Libya's opposition on Facebook also showed scores of anti-government protesters raising the pre-Gaddafi flag on a building in Zawiya, 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Tripoli. The city is located near a key oil port and refineries on the Mediterranean. The footage couldn't be independently confirmed.
Government opponents were also in control in Zwara, a town about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Tunisian border in the west, after local army units sided with them and police fled, said one resident, a 25-year-old unemployed university graduate. "This man (Gaddafi) has reached the point that he's saying he will bring armies from Africa. That means he is isolated," he said.
Gaddafi long kept his army weak and divided for fear of challenge, so in the fierce crackdown his regime has waged on the uprising, he has relied on militia groups, beefed up by fighters hired abroad. Meanwhile, army units in many places have sided with the rebellion.
On Wednesday, two air force pilots jumped from parachutes from their Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jet and let it crash, rather than carry out orders to bomb opposition-held Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city, the website Qureyna reported, citing an unidentified officer in the air force control room.
One of the pilots - identified by the report as Ali Omar Gadhafi - was from Gaddafi's tribe, the Gaddadfa, said Farag al-Maghrabi, who saw the pilots and the wreckage of the jet, which crashed in the desert outside the key oil port of Breqa, about 710 kilometers (440 miles) east of Tripoli.
The anti-Gaddafi forces and the mutinous army units that have joined them were consolidating their hold on nearly the entire eastern half of the 1,000-mile Mediterranean coastline, stretching from the Egyptian border to Ajdabiya, about 800 kilometers (480 miles) east of Tripoli, encroaching on key oil fields around the Gulf of Sidra.
Across their territory, they have been setting up their own administrations. In many places, committees organized by residents, tribes and mutinous army officers were governing, often collecting weapons looted from pro-Gaddafi troops to prevent chaos.
"There is now an operating room for the militaries of all the liberated cities and they are trying to convince the others to join them," said Lt. Col. Omar Hamza, an army officer who had allied with the rebels in Tobruk. "They are trying to help the people in Tripoli to capture Gaddafi."
At the Egyptian border, guards had fled, and local tribal elders have formed local committees to take their place. "Welcome to the new Libya," proclaimed graffiti spray-painted at the crossing. Fawzy Ignashy, a former soldier now in civilian clothes at the border, said that early in the uprising, some commanders ordered troops to fire on protesters, but tribal leaders stepped in and ordered them to stop.
"They did because they were from here. So the officers fled," he said.
A defense committee of residents was even guarding one of Gaddafi's once highly secretive anti-aircraft missile bases outside Tobruk. "This is the first time I've seen missiles like these up close," said Abdelsalam al-Gedani, one of the guards, dressed in an overcoat and carrying a Kalashnikov rifle.
The U.S. is rushing to evacuate its citizens from Libya. A ferry scheduled to leave Tripoli yesterday with U.S. diplomats and family members was delayed by bad weather.
State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said, “Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman has spoken with Libyan officials in recent days and requested the Libyan government’s cooperation as we remove our citizens and our diplomats and their families from Libya.”
Once U.S. personnel are safe, the White House should move against the Gaddafi regime, said Elliott Abrams, a deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush.
Abrams, now a fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, said U.S. actions might include freezing the country’s bank accounts so Gaddafi loyalists can’t raid them, imposing an international arms embargo on Libya and creating a no-fly zone over the country enforced by the U.S. and NATO or European Union air forces.
I don’t see any reason for us not to begin that discussion, Abrams said. You may run into Russian and Chinese vetoes, but the discussion itself would show how much we are concerned about this use of violence against the population.